How Bullet Journalling Helps My Anxiety

I’ve kept a somewhat consistent journal since high school. Usually it was just emotional ramblings about an event — nothing really reflective. My freshman year of high school, my best friend Jess and I were in different grades and classes. As a way to keep each other up to date on everything, we made each other daily lists. It was like a daily journal with columns: there were sections for pros (good things from the day), cons (bad things), thoughts (stream of consciousness), things we wanted to discuss, and GILSFT (guys I’ve liked so far today — basically a running list of momentary crushes). I loved writing those and trading them with her. They’re still in a binder somewhere. 

As I’ve gotten older, my purposes in journalling have (I think) matured. I’m more focused on honest reflection, self-awareness, and recording lessons being learned. At one point, I had three different books of journals at any given time: one for my to do lists/daily activities, one for notes on studying the Bible, and one for my long-winded reflections and thoughts. These three books plus my Bible went with me everywhere. It eventually got tedious though: bringing so many books just for a weekend trip? 

I don’t remember how I was first introduced to the idea of bullet journalling. I studied the original articles, then was promptly overwhelmed by all of the picture perfect examples on Pinterest. Still, what I love about bullet journalling is the free-reign of personalization. No, you do not have to water paint a full page of pumpkins in order to usher in the advent of fall; you can just write “October” at the top of the page. I played around with features, spreads, and focuses for about two years until I settled in on how I currently use it. I still have a separate book for my devotional and Bible study notes, but everything else goes in my (currently) turquoise bullet journal. I derive so much value from it, in fact, that I taught all of my classes how to create their own during my last year of teaching. A few students have even reached out to thank me. 

So what’s the big deal?

I’m not going to use this post to explain the ins and outs of bullet journalling — I’ll let the experts do that. But I do want to outline how journalling at all and journalling this way has helped me with my anxiety immensely.

Photo by Laura Ohlman on Unsplash

Helps me process

Whether it’s a bullet journal or another kind, I process by writing. Honestly, I rarely even know what I’m going to write about in a blog post — I find out by writing it. To someone without anxiety, I like to describe it as all of my thoughts and feelings being insufferably loud. It’s hard to think because intrusive thoughts are moving so quickly and so loudly, bringing along waves of overwhelming emotions. At its worst, I can’t talk it out with someone, pray, or even think straight. Thus, it helps me to write it out. I generally don’t write out all my anxious thoughts — I like those to be lost to an imperfect memory. Instead, I write out things that I know to be true, I write out my questions or worries succinctly, and I follow the path of ‘why?’ to figure out why I’m feeling this way. 

When I’m extremely nervous about an upcoming project. Why? What am I so afraid of? I keep asking why, keep following my line of thinking, until I find the root of my thought pattern: I don’t think I’ll do it well enough, I’ll fail, and then I’ll disappoint everyone. Once I know what the root issue is, the intrusive thoughts fade enough for me to give it to God in prayer, remember the truth, and work through it.

Later on, that same anxiety might come up again. Instead of having to work through the experience one step at a time again, I can refer back to where I wrote it out already and be encouraged and comforted by the solution I came to last time. 

Consolidate (one less decision)

An underlying experience with my struggle with anxiety is swift decision fatigue: I am easily overwhelmed by making decisions, because I have a compulsive need to make the best possible decision, every time, no matter what. Thus, the more of my life that I can organize into well-structured routines, the better. I can distinctly remember getting anxious about which books to bring for a 7 hour trip somewhere. What if I want to write a prayer? Or a todo list for next week? What if I just have a strong urge to write out my thoughts? Should I bring all three books? Will that look weird? Am I overthinking this? (Answer: yes). It may seem small, but this caused me a lot of stress. What if I used my prayer book for my thoughts? That’ll ruin the book; I can’t do that. 

Enter bullet journalling. Now, I write everything here: plans for the week, plans for the day, prayer requests, answers to prayer, things I’m thankful for, things I’m worried about, questions, confirmation numbers, phone numbers, reminders, ALL OF IT. This makes even where I write a routine, thus putting my mind more at ease.

Makes the to do list more manageable

Before I used a bullet journal, I wrote my daily to do list on sticky notes. I favored them because they’re small (so I can’t crowd too much into one day), and they stick wherever I put them. Still, I noticed a flaw: I was carrying all the possible things I could do each day into each day. No matter how much I did, there was more to do. Thus, I rarely (never?) ended my days feeling like I did enough. And that’s a terrible way to feel.

With bullet journalling, I can split up the week’s tasks over the course of the week, instead of letting them all weigh on my mind each day. If I finished what I scheduled for today, well and good. I don’t have to worry about that other task — I scheduled it for Thursday, so I’m not going to think about it until Thursday. What used to be overwhelming — all the things! — is now more manageable because I break it up into days. 

Enables me to focus on what’s important

Similarly, by breaking things up to different days, this allows me to focus on what’s important. I do a lot of things that feel important: I’m a student, TA, writer, podcast-recorder, and speaker & teacher. All of these things deserve time and prayer. But if I try to touch on all of them every day, I’ll get nothing meaningful done. Thus, I choose certain days to focus on certain tasks. For example, Mondays are writing days. They’re the days where my main, important task is to write: both for Worried Sapling and my book (ah!). Do I need to study software engineering? Sure do — but that’s not my focus today. What about laundry? Also important, but that’s for Sundays and Wednesdays. 

This removes a lot of the false guilt I often feel when I don’t do everything important at once. I’ve given them all a place, and need only focus on them when the day comes. This frees up both my mind and my emotions in order to focus on what’s important. 

See how much you’ve grown

I often think I look the exact same as I did in high school — until I look at photos. Similarly, I can often despair that I don’t feel like I’m growing as a person or a Christian. Yet one glance from journal entries from a year or two ago assures me that I most certainly have. A common lie anxiety tells me is that I am going nowhere, I’m making no progress, I’m learning nothing, I can’t improve, etc. When that narrative looms large, I need only flip through the pages of past journals to refute it completely. This is intensely encouraging to my heart. 

Not only that, but my journals record the lessons I’ve learned and how I’ve learned them. This actually helps me to continue to grow, as I don’t have to relearn these lessons from scratch. 

Brush lettering is therapeutic 

I have taken one practice from Pinterest: brush lettering. I’ve used the fancy markers, but I actually prefer to do it with a cheap ballpoint pen: outlining the shapes then coloring them in. I start every day by writing the day of the week and date with brush letters. My mind is often racing when I sit down to start my day, and this slow practice helps my mind calm before praying, studying the Bible, and planning my day. There’s no rush in brush lettering: it requires slow and intentional lines, even pressure, and an eye for detail. 

Even if I haven’t convinced you to take up bullet journalling, I hope you’ll remember it to recommend to someone you love. It takes time, as all new habits do; but I’ve found that it brings a wealth of blessing in its practice.